For decades, but actually for centuries, educational scholars have been pushing for ways of teaching that engage children and contribute to their growth and development as thoughtful participants in society. However, corporate and political forces always seem to win out in the battles between thoughtful and thoughtless schooling.
Thoughtless schooling has been empowered from the positivist and mechanist thrusts developed and propagated by Descartes and Newton. Although positivism and mechanism may have removed a veil of ignorance and introduced revolutionary ways of thinking and of relating to the world, they have had their negative effects over the last few centuries. In a way, these Cartesian ways of thinking have led to the development of their own veil of ignorance. (By “ignorance” I mean “being in a state of ignoring” rather than a sense of stupidity. In fact, ignorance may be quite smart, as we actively avoid seeing “something,” that is usually something we don’t want to see or take into account. Ignorance usually involves being stuck in a set of assumptions.)
Just as the pre-Cartesian peoples of the West were guided by superstitions and myths of various kinds, we post-Cartesianists have our own set of superstitions and myths that guide our thinking, actions, and decision-making. We think that everything can be reduced to a number and that numbers are truth. We think that all people are equal (or the same…), rather than as different. From this view we think that all children can conform to the same ways of learning and thinking. We believe that there is a linear and sequential pattern of cause and effect and that thinking and learning should occur in linear and sequential ways. We also continue to see learning as something static. We think of learning as the acquisition of a body of unchanging knowledge.
At the same time, researchers and scholars have been suggesting very different approaches to understanding the world and to thinking and learning. Such alternatives are closely aligned to more recent understandings of the complexity sciences, as well as the psychology of social constructivism and distributed learning. From such perspectives, learning is not viewed as linear and sequential or as static. Instead, learning is viewed as recursive (looping around in complex interconnections) and ever-changing. Learning is seen as a social process, where ideas are shared, negotiated, and argued. Even though each individual may put his or her own “spin” on particular ideas, the ideas have been a product of the social dynamic.
Now, we have returned to yet another veil of ignorance under the guise of the Common Core standards. All students are supposed to learn the same material from a list of concepts. Science learning in the early grades, where children’s curiosity is at its peak, is relegated to reading about science rather than exploring, testing, and playing with “stuff” and ideas. We’re yet again returning to a system of schooling that kills children – kills their inquisitiveness—curiosity, playfulness, creativity, and deeper intelligence. They are pounded into a state of ignorance by an adult world steeped in ignorance. The designers of the Common Core, bless their hearts, are so deeply embedded in our cultural state of ignorance, they actually think they are doing some good for the children.
Children desperately need to experience deep, meaningful, and relevant learning. But, all of schooling is based on shallow, meaningless, irrelevant, and fragmented “learning,” all of which seems to be reduced to “memorization.” It really doesn’t much matter what children learn as long as they can learn something in great depth. Once they experience learning of this sort, where they not only learn a set of interconnected concepts, but learn how to evaluate that knowledge and how that knowledge works and relates to a variety of contexts (e.g., how the concept of energy relates to ecological, social, political, and economic contexts). This level of learning is what Gregory Bateson referred to as Learning III (Bateson, 1972/2000). Learning at this level of complexity is what children need to experience and practice. In fact, this type of learning is what is going to be necessary for our children’s survival in a very uncertain future.
In addition, the idea that children need to continue to learn a broad spectrum of ideas is silly. We have such easy access to information that it makes more sense to have children experience real in-depth learning, so they know what this kind of learning “feels like” and then learn how to find and evaluate knowledge claims in relevant contexts.
We’ve also lost all sense of children as being “producers” of knowledge rather than just “consumers” of knowledge (Marshall, 1992). They need to be engaged in constructing and evaluating their own knowledge claims. They do this informally in their everyday lives, but we fail to take advantage of this pattern of learning to help them hone these skills.
At present, we are facing the dire ecological consequences of our previous states of Cartesian ignorance. We are not only in a state of “peak” oil, but also in a state of peak everything… water, soil, and resources of all kinds. Our children are going to be confronted with collapse on many fronts, yet we continue to teach them material that is irrelevant to their futures. We continue to emphasize approaches and knowledge that don’t provide them with the knowledge and skills to survive or thrive in the future.
For whatever reasons, but probably those that come from the pressures of corporate greed and its consequent ideas of economic growth, global competition, mass conformity, and keeping the populace in a state of shared ignorance, we continue to push a variation of the a same approach to education that has gotten nowhere. The approaches that seem to have always taken over are deeply embedded in what Bateson would call Level 0 or proto—learning, otherwise known as rote learning. As long as we try to quantify learning, which is not quantifiable (there is no “quantity” of learning), along with high stakes tests and corporatized curriculum, our children will not learn at the levels of which they are so capable.
So, what are we to do?
For those of you interested in a more in-depth analysis of the problems with the Common Core, download the following paper: Common Core State Standards: An Example of Data-less Decision Making by Christopher H. Tienken (2011), in the Journal of Scholarship and Practice
Bateson, G. (1972/2000). Steps to an ecology of mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Marshall, H. H. (1992). Seeing, redefining, and supporting student learning. In H. H. Marshall (Ed.), Redefining student learning: Roots of educational change (pp. 1—32). Ablex